I was reminded tonight of something that happened to me once. Something that might fill most people with immense fear. I suppose I technically could add it to the list of times that I’ve almost died, but for me (and one complete stranger), I don’t think of it that way at all – and it was one of the most incredible mornings of my life.
I lived in Florida at the time. I grew up there, but had gone away for many years. I came back, helped a bit, and screwed up a bit. I was still trying to find a place to fit back in, in the place that used to be my home, and I had found a job at a horse stable – the kind of place that keeps stalls that other people rent to keep their horses. It was rather far away from where I lived, and it paid nothing at all. At that time I had little ‘professional’ horse experience and wanted more, so I took the job despite the low pay and crazily early hours.
Horses get up early, you know. Because of the distance, I had to get up even earlier to be there in time to make sure they got their breakfast on schedule.
I had a pretty long commute. There were two bridges to cross. Here’s the first one, courtesy of this place (as I have no photos of my own). Please let me know if you don’t wish me to use your image.
It’s not terribly arched, as you can see, and as evidenced by a barge smashing the hell out of it this month. But in such a flat place, even a little bit of height meant you could see a long distance. What I could see ahead of me was a massive black and grey storm wall lit by flashes of lightning.
Oh, how I wish we had digital cameras in 1998. It was amazing, and I was about to drive into it.
It was six, seven miles from that bridge to the next one. I waited, fascinated, as I drove straight into the storm – with beautiful Florida dawn sunshine all around me, sparkling off the white sand on either side of the one-and-only road I could take to my destination – the dark wall looming in front of me, blasts of lightning forking down (up, really) without cease.
I wanted to post a picture of that next bridge, but everything I find online breaks my heart. The ‘good’ pictures all face away from my old home town now, as it has been made so ugly by unchained development. I feel somewhat physically sick after looking at the photos online. So we won’t go there visually.
My bridge (the one I remember being built, the one I could walk to from my house and played under as a child) has a higher arch than the other one in the photo. An arch that, as a driver, came at you as a vertical climb. But before I reached the bridge, I had entered the storm front and was inside the black. The rain was so heavy and intense, there was nothing my wipers could ever do to make a difference. It would have hurt your skin to stand in this rain, I am sure.
It was a thunderstorm the likes of which I had never seen. Usually FL storms are afternoon ones, over and gone before they do much more than raise the humidity another few degrees. I wasn’t used to being up that early, so perhaps it happened more than I knew.
The lightning was now so frequent that I couldn’t even tell that I was even on a bridge. I had lost the ability to see the lines on either side of the road. My vision was of nothing but sheets of rain lit by stroboscopic flashes so close together I had to trust to instinct to keep moving – stopping wasn’t an option when anyone could have been behind me and there hadn’t been a ‘side of the road’ for anyone to pull on to for safety for miles. I couldn’t stop, as I couldn’t be sure someone wasn’t about to ram me from behind and send me off the bridge entirely.
What I knew for sure is that I was about to be a single human in a metal box at the crest of the highest point around for miles, with lightning striking so often it wasn’t seconds, not even one second, between strikes.
What could I do about it? Not a dammed thing!
It was the most exciting and joyous moment of my life. I wasn’t scared, not one bit. I looked death in the face right then and there, and I screamed, shouted, and sung nonsense in jubilation, as I smashed my right fist against the roof of my truck over and over – and I did that to get as close to the highest bit of metal that I could, so the connection to pure voltage would be lessened (I looked for a dent later). My heart and my head shouted this dare to nature, “Come and get me, here I am, and I choose this way to die if this is my time! Yes! Let me go out happy and amazed and screaming for joy!”
Well. Clearly I didn’t cop it that morning. I rolled down the other side of the bridge into town, and into places where the buildings and telephone poles were much, much higher than me and my little Dodge Dakota. But I wasn’t just small and low anymore – I wasn’t alone.
The traffic lights were still working – somehow all that electric madness hadn’t hit anything of importance and the power was still on. I stopped for a red light, still in the left lane (the ‘fast lane’ in the US – the way I drive I usually stay in that lane). As I sat there quivering and coming down off of my adrenaline high, another car came to rest to my right, waiting as I was for the light to change. It was just us two, no other cars to be seen in any direction.
A streak of pure energy lit up the intersection as an electric/telephone pole was struck by lightning. It was on my side of the road, but on the other side of the intersection. I screamed again, and again for joy – not fear – I still thought I was going to die that day and it was, indeed, a good day to die. I know I wasn’t afraid, because I immediately looked to the only other witness of this near-brush with mortality – the man in the car next to me.
I had a huge, huge grin on my face, and so did he. I let loose another of my barbaric yawps, and so did he. And we grinned at each other, sharing the moment of ‘omygoddidyouseethat?’ until the light changed and we went our separate ways.
I suppose these days I’m not likely to die by lightning. But if I do? Be assured I will go with a smile on my face.